Since the Gold Rush, bars have defined a part of Mission culture associated with nightlife, a bit of danger and camaraderie. The coronavirus pandemic could change that forever.
“Everything is at risk of going away and not coming back. We should be on red alert right now,” said Ben Bleiman, owner of the Tonic Nightlife Group and founder of the nightlife business advocacy group California Music and Culture Association.
More than restaurants, theaters and parks, bars are defined by the crush of revelers they attract. A packed bar says it’s popular and holds the possibility of meeting someone new or running into an old friend. COVID-19 has obliterated that crush. And, already beset by rising rents, the virus has put the city’s bars in perhaps their worst crisis in history.
Owners of The Stud, San Francisco’s oldest gay bar, announced this week that they are abandoning their present location and going on indefinite hiatus after 54 years of operation. Thieves Bar and Blind Cat followed with news of their own demises.
“[Bars] are on life support right now,” said Bleiman.
He predicts that 40 percent of the city’s bars could permanently close due to COVID-19.
“We don’t have months and months of cash reserves, especially in the Mission, where rents were getting higher and space was getting limited,” he said.
Although restaurants have the option of takeout, many bars remain completely shuttered, especially many of the Mission’s older, iconic bars that do not serve food and cannot offer takeout to stay afloat. This puts them at even higher risk of going away for good.
“These iconic neighborhood bars that don’t serve food; they’re considered non-essential, but those who rely on it for community, income, emotional support — they would be greatly affected if those spaces move away,” said Matt Norris, the owner of Evil Eye on Mission Street, a bar that opened in June 2016.
“Watering holes are a big part of the Mission,” he added.
Evil Eye has a kitchen and serves takeout food and alcoholic beverages from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, but Norris is still concerned about paying the bills.
“Any place that relies on a bar-heavy business model, volume keeps you afloat, and you have to sacrifice volume to socially distance,” said Norris.
Also: What fun is a bar if everyone is six feet apart?
The atmosphere that frequent sanitation and social distancing creates could spoil the intimacy that bar patrons have come to expect, and could drive customers away, said Mark DeVito, a co-owner of Dr. Teeth.
“Bars don’t have tables six feet from each other … we’ve never done reservations, but we may do so in the future, and to say, ‘you have 45 minutes to be here and then you have to move along,’ it’s the exact opposite of hospitality,” said DeVito.
And then again, there is the cost. DeVito wonders if implementing social distancing at his bar, once it reopens, could prove to be more costly than it’s worth.
“It will take a lot of staff to make sure that people only go to the bathroom one at a time, and that it’s disinfected. It’s going to be difficult for bars to redo their floor plan and put up barriers. To do it, you may end up losing more money,” said DeVito.
Laurie Thomas, director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, agreed that these concerns are real. Bars with kitchens may resume dine-in services by June, she said. But profitability depends on packing people in — and physical distancing is the antithesis of that.
Already, the closure has pushed many owners to the brink.
Norris pointed out that an endemic problem for bars are high costs of licensing fees for bar amenities such as pool tables and pinball machines. Business property taxes and health department license fees, combined with high rent, make it hard for bars to turn a profit in San Francisco.
Bleiman from the Tonic Nightlife Group says that “everything should be on the table,” and that the city should remove “red tape” imposed on business owners during COVID-19.
“We need to rethink every single fee, tax, planning code, conditional use requirement, discretionary review requirement, neighborhood notification requirement, [increase] use of sidewalks, parking spaces, streets. Otherwise 50, 60, 70 percent of bars in the city will never reopen” said Bleiman.
One of Bleiman’s suggestions was to allow bars, which hold Type 48, liquor-only licenses, to perform take-out services, such as to-go cocktail kits and not just sealed bottles. Currently, alcohol can only be sold as part of a food order, preventing bars that do not serve any food from doing takeout. Bleiman’s suggestions are echoed by a report created by 50 city restaurant owners, which was published by Eater earlier this month.
“Everything in that document works for bars,” said Bleiman. Other recommendations made by restaurateurs in the report include abatement of commercial rent proportional to social distancing-induced capacity reduction, eviction protection, grant funds for static costs not forgivable under the Payroll Protection Program, and reduction of fees and taxes, among others.
While restaurants have widespread support, bars aren’t viewed by everyone as bringing value, said Tom Tierney, owner of Pop’s, who worries that this could hinder efforts to get some breaks on regulations.
“We’re gonna be the last industry to open up [because] I think we’re still considered a ‘sin industry’,” he said, adding that’s simply not the case. “A bar is more than a place where you have a drink. We’ve celebrated anniversaries, weddings, we’ve gone to funerals. I get stories from customers like ‘my grandfather proposed to my grandmother here’ all the time.”
During the closure, Tierney and his business partner, Michael Krouse, have organized a GoFundMe campaign to help Pop’s weather the pandemic. So far, they’ve raised nearly half of their $15,000 goal.
Tierney is optimistic — and although some bars will close, he believes in the resiliency of those that remain, which will become all the more important to the community.
“The bars that are left will be even more important to people,” he said.
And Tierney plans to stick around: “I’m not going to be the guy who puts Pop’s out of business.”
If you read us often, please support our reporting. We depend on you.